Bristol Temple Meads railway station, built by Brunel in 1840
Sadly Brunel's terminus is no longer part of the operational station, closing in 1965. The architectural and historical significance of the station has been Grade 1 protected. Fortunately The British Empire & Commonwealth Museum opened in the old railway station in 2002, following expensive and extensive renovation (£8 million).
Its role was to explore the history of the British Empire and the effect of British colonial rule on the rest of the world. It aimed at presenting an even-handed version of imperial history, rather than automatically condemning or automatically glorifying the empire. This was probably an impossible goal, but it was always good to see left wing and right wing historians equally offended.
The museum was also the home of an epic tapestry. The New World Tapestry was the largest stitched embroidery in the world, larger than the Bayeux Tapestry. It depicted English colonisation projects in Newfoundland, North America, the Guyanas and Bermuda between 1583-1642, when the English Civil War began. The 24 panels of the tapestry extended for 81.3 m in length and were 1.2 m high. It took from 1980 to 2000 to be completed.
On the day I visited the Bristol Museum, our group included colleagues from Canada, New Zealand and South Africa who enjoyed the quality of the historical material, but we did not have any historians from the sub-continent, Singapore, Hong Kong or the West Indies. I wonder if the two groups would have reacted differently.
The passenger shed, mentioned above as being right next to the railway station, was not wasted. It was one of the largest performance venues in the South West.
Sadly for historically minded visitors, the museum announced it would be closing up and moving to London in 2008. What a shame. Bristol was a great site for the museum, given its key role as a major port in centuries past. Bristol was a transit point for international trade, including the transatlantic slave trade which was abolished in 1807. And the old Brunel railway station provided a perfect exhibition space.
Bristol railways, old passenger shed
In the meantime, The M Shed is a different Bristol museum that opened in July 2011. Bristol museums seem to be a movable feast. The new project is located in a dockside transit shed that was previously occupied by the Bristol Industrial Museum. It is chockablock full of Bristol artefacts and images, showing Bristol's role in the slave trade and exhibits on transport, the arts and local citizens. And outside the shed, moored in the docks, is a collection of historic vessels. The conversion will eventually cost a cool £27 m.
The M Shed, Bristol. Opened July 2011
The National Maritime Museum of Cornwall in Falmouth has collections that consist of objects, boats, art, books and archives, all promoting the history of Cornwall, its maritime heritage and small boats. Much of the collection came from the former Cornwall Maritime Museum in Falmouth. The Small Boat Collection, which was orginally developed by the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, is also housed in Cornwall where it has been extended by the addition of other British and international boats. Finally The National Maritime Museum Cornwall is the home to the Royal Society of Marine Artists.
I wouldn’t have added the Cornwall Maritime Museum into a discussion of Bristol, Brunel and and British Empire history, except for one link. The Falmouth museum put on lectures about Brunel the great engineer and the construction of his important ships and their legacy.